Writer and Director: David R. Romay
One of the big draws of a film festival is the chance to see work by debut writers and directors. Beyond the Mountain is David R. Romay’s first picture which won the top prize at the Lledia Latin-American Film Festival in 2019. Now showing as part of the online We Are One Festival, the bond and absence of parental relationships is poignantly and subtly explored.
Typist Miguel is privy to the secrets of others as he prepares their letters but when his own mother commits suicide after a long illness, the 18-year old sets out on a journey to find the father who abandoned them in the maternity ward. Following the trail out of Mexico City, Miguel meets a series of acquaintances who take him one step closer to the longed-for reunion and a significant confrontation.
This film will change your perspective of Mexican cinema and banish the cliché of telenovelas forever. Romay’s sensitive and charming first feature is subtly told, with tones of Kenneth Lonergan in the stark, unromantic and almost gritty camerawork and reminiscent of Andrea Arnold in the way Romay frames his working class story of a young man dreaming of something better than the life he has. The muted colour palette of Fergán Chávez Ferrer’s cinematography adds a dreariness even when filming the garish décor of the hotel room with its orange patterned bed spread, while the seedy neon lights of the pub or the purple infused intensity of a first kiss add a dreamlike quality, deliberately temporary and intoxicating.
Badged as a thriller, this is only a partially accurate description of what we see and barely describes the layers of an engaging movie that is as much about the process and consequences of emotional abandonment as it is a quest to track down an absent father. We see this mirrored in a subplot with a girl who has been deserted by a lover she then pursues and the only intimacy she shares is really with Miguel who once typed her letter and later becomes a sort of protector, both harbouring hopes of somehow being found and saved by their encounter.
The thriller element comes almost entirely through the central performance as Miguel’s mental state changes when he decides to act against his father. Romay uses close-ups of his face to build tension and refrains from any melodramatic music or scene shaping, instead relying on actor Benny Emmanuel’s eyes to indicate a renewed focus in anticipation of decisive confrontation ahead.
Emmanuel’s performance is the centre of this film, credibly carrying every aspect of the storytelling from the restrained boy caring for his ailing mother, through his encounter with various strangers to the ambiguity of the eventual outcomes. At every point the audience believe entirely in Miguel’s motivation, the growing desire for revenge, and, as a fresh understanding of the wider circumstances causes it to waver, seeing the sweet, decent and emotionally vulnerable boy emerge once more.
It concludes in a physical and existential wilderness – a nod to the classier Westerns in the visual style – father and son tied together facing a Beckettian dilemma of eternal companionship or a dramatic release that will never really free either of them. Arguably, prolonging that ambiguity for a little longer or indefinitely may have been more satisfying a conclusion, but this is a great first picture and Romay is a talent to watch.
Available here until 9 June 2020